Arctic Oil Drilling: Destruction of the Ecosystem from the Bottom Up

Arctic oil drilling poses a serious threat to wildlife and ecosystem health

Abigail Thomas: Environmental Science

Benjamin Sharaf: Natural Resource Conservation

Mike Piper: Turfgrass Management

The spill occurred about 5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, where it spread devastation and chaos across the area’s ecosystem. Wildlife of all kinds washed up to shore covered in black muck (Frost, 2016).  They were overcome by the foreign liquid that seemed to consume them.  The day was April 20, 2010, when the worst oil spill in our nation’s history occurred (Frost, 2016).  After over 3 million barrels of oil leaked across the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida hundreds of thousands of animals and even 11 human beings had been killed (Frost, 2016). This event crippled the ecosystem and created lasting effects across every trophic level that will be felt for many more years to come (Frost, 2016). The sad part is we may never learn from our mistakes. After we watch something like the Gulf oil spill happen, we are still considering allowing more oil companies to spread their territory (in other words by drilling in more frequently and in different areas).  More specifically oil companies are trying to lay claim to the Arctic, one of the last untapped resource of oil (“Arctic Oil Drilling,” (n.d.)). If we care about our planet and the creatures that reside here, we can not let this happen. The Arctic is home to millions of organisms that pose amazing benefits to our earth (Whelan, 2016). If something happened in the Arctic like it did in the Gulf of Mexico, there’s no telling if the area would ever recover. The risk is far too great just to make money, even if an oil spill is unlikely. The only way to make sure this never happens is to create a treaty. This would entail all the countries that will stake claim to the Arctic, to never allow any drilling. The Arctic is a extremely fragile ecosystem that needs to stay the way it is in order to preserve the vast beauty and creatures it protects. Oil drilling in the Arctic will negatively impact the health of nearby wildlife and creation of a treaty to leave the arctic alone, is the most reasonable solution.

There is great documentation of oil spills on large mammals, birds, and fish are but public concern rarely focuses on oil drilling from a microscopic level. We often overlook the decimation of microorganisms and phytoplankton populations since it is not visible to the human eye. These organisms serve as the basis for the entire arctic ecosystem. Harm to microbes throws off the entire food chain for the species in the arctic and will fail to support consumer species like seals, fish, and polar bears (Earth Island Journal, n.d.). Therefore, when looking at impacts of Arctic oil drilling, we decided to start from the bottom up and microbes cannot be ignored in the scope of oil spill impacts.  Many critical microbes in the arctic, such as phytoplankton (a conglomerate of algae and photosynthetic bacteria) (Conniff, 2016), and starch or cellulose consuming microbes, have experienced major die offs due to introduction of oil (Okpokwasili, C., Nnubia, 1995). Our focus in microorganisms can be broken down into microbes that chemically create their own food, like phytoplankton (autotrophs) and microbes that consume other sources for food (heterotrophs).

Oil spills ex-situ, or in contained environments outside of natural range have shown adverse effects on both autotrophic and heterotrophic microbe populations (Brussaard et al., 2016; Okpokwasili, Nnubia, 1995). Studies conclude the dangers of oil, droplets will eliminate 50% of exposed phytoplankton within the first two days of the study and the entire population only days after (Brussaard et al., 2016). Loss of the first trophic level prevents the cycling of resources throughout the ecosystem and disconnects the Arctic food web. Surviving phytoplankton lose productivity after introduction of oil (Miller, Alexander, and Barsdate, 1978, p.200). Autotrophs introduced drop in photosynthetic rates and therefore net primary productivity for phytoplankton by 50% (Miller, Alexander, and Barsdate, 1978, pp.202-204). Ex-situ studies in Arctic environments have shown to have a negative impact on autotrophs. Native phytoplankton species like S. costatum have a low tolerance to oil exposure which gets significantly worse as temperature decreases. Therefore, the authors predict that arctic oil drilling will cause a die off of phytoplankton at a higher magnitude than we would expect (Ozhan, Parsons, and Bargu, 2016). We have seen similar impacts on heterotrophs, which stand for the second trophic level. Heterotrophic microbes bioaccumulate toxins by a factor of three, as they increase from toxicity levels of  [365 ± 59 versus 113 ± 15 cells per ml] (Okpokwasili & Nnubia, 1995 p.4). Dramatic decreases in productivity impact the survival of zooplankton. Furthermore, toxins in surviving microbes can bioaccumulate further throughout higher trophic levels (G. C., Okpokwasili, C., Nnubia, 1995).

On April 20th, 2010, the deepwater horizon oil spill devastated surrounding phytoplankton and zooplankton populations. This serves as one of the main field studies of oil spill impacts on phytoplankton as most microscopic studies take place in lab. During the BP oil spill, there was a significant short term die off for phytoplankton and zooplankton, which supports the tests conducted in lab (Ozhan, Parsons, and Bargu, 2016). Intensive field observations are limited for phytoplankton and due to their size and usefulness in lab, so in situ studies are relatively limited. A major exception to this statement is in a study performed by Miller, Alexender, and Barsdate (1978) who observed oil impacts through natural oil seeps and spills in Arctic environments over a seven year period. The authors concluded that phytoplankton populations disappeared completely after exposure and oil leakage altered the composition of marine life as they had to compensate. Furthermore, they concluded that direct exposure created an initial die off in phytoplankton populations. While this study focuses on Arctic lakes, it is still highly applicable to marine outcomes due to the climate, duration, and type of oil exposed to microbes. Oil spills are already documented in the Arctic and show a highly negative impact on microbe success.


Fish experience bioaccumulation when they feed on zooplankton that absorb heavy metals. Also, metals that are not absorbed often settle on nearby substrate of the ocean floor, where many species of fish are known to feed (El-Moselhy, Kh. M., Othman, A.I., Abd El-Azem, H., El-Metwally, 2013). Toxins are seen to accumulate in surviving microbes that come in direct or indirect contact with oil droplets which accumulates throughout trophic levels (Brussaard et al. 2016). Similarly, zooplankton are a main food species for fish. This interaction had a significant impact on the surrounding ecosystem, as red snapper fed off of zooplankton, and had to prey switch to crabs and shrimp. Mature red snappers starved since they almost exclusively fed on zooplankton (Tarnecki & Patterson III, 2015). This information, paired with the startling dietary lesions reported on red snapper and lack of health displays a direct visible change in biomass throughout the food chain (Ozhan, Parsons, and Bargu, 2016).

When discussing environmental effects of oil spills in coastal regions you cannot ignore the health of local fish species within the oil contaminated area.  Fish may avoid oil dispersed areas naturally, but fish can still absorb PAHs through dilution of the dispersant in the water, absorbing PAHs through their skin into their organelles, causing serious impairments (Fodrie et. al., 2014), and leave the fish exposed, unfit and useless to the reproduction of their species. As oil weathers, multiringed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that accumulate in seawater can be toxic for fishes at even low concentrations (around 1 part per billion) (Marty, D. et al 1997). Meanwhile, Marty, D. et al., (1997) completed a lab study that showed increased mortality in developing pink salmon larvae as well as retardation in pink salmon larvae after doses of oil as small as 55.2 pg oil/g gravel in tank. (p. 1) The correlation between suffering fish larvae and oil dilution is immense within our studies, in fact. (Claireaux, G. 2004) also concluded fish larvae ailments when studying the PAH effects of the common sole fish including increase in mortality (p. 342, experiment 2) and a reduction in metabolic rates (p. 341, metabolism), which in turn required more oxygen in the fish in order for it to survive. Another example would be the embryos of Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) and pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) exposed to Exxon Valdez (EV) oil exhibited elevated genetic damage, greater incidence of morphological deformities, reduced hatch sizes, premature hatching, and increased mortality (Fodrie, et. al. 2014, p. 1). Concluding the hypothesis that fish larvae are highly affected by oil dispersants.

But the odds of you, me, or anyone at all really, taking the time to care about one fish somewhere deep under water in the Arctic is highly unlikely. Fish swimming amongst Arctic waters don’t know the devastation of oil spills so, “why should I care?”, you might ask. You shouldn’t care about the effects oil spills will have on that fish, you really shouldn’t care what the fish has been through and you really shouldn’t care if it dies or survives, to tell you the truth. Unless of course, you eat fish and hope to keep it within your diet, or your area of residence depends economically on fisheries, or you like the idea of our world being pristine, untouched, and unmarked by human kind. If so, then you might begin to care about the effects oil spills have on fish and their little, tiny, oil soaked hearts.

Speaking of hearts for a moment, let us look further into the idea of fish hearts being damaged from BP’s 2010 oil spill. It is important to know, when discussing results of oil spills within fish, that fish larvae are more susceptible to impairment compared to adult fish to oil side effects; this is due to fish larvaes lack of a liver in developmental stages (Welch, 2015). The liver in fish “assists in digestion by secreting enzymes that break down fats…the liver also rids the fish of old blood cells, helping maintain proper blood chemistry”, according to “Fish Anatomy” (1999-2016). So without a functioning liver in their body fish larvae cannot resist the effects of PAHs in oil (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and therefore see much harsher side-effects including: changes in heart physiology/morphology, acute/delayed mortality and cardiovascular problems also leading to higher mortality rates due to decrease swimming speeds and capabilities (Incardona et al., 2014).  This is especially negative because the baby fish effected won’t grow old enough to procreate.  When this occurs the population of that type of fish will slowly dwindle down to nothing.  This is because there are no baby fish replacing the old fish.  Don’t worry too much though, the odds of one of your favorite fish foods being impacted by oil spill defects is slim…right? You couldn’t possibly be bothered by this.

For the sake of interest, let’s discuss one fish for a moment, although many, if not all fish are affected by oil spills, one species stands out to me as a “bigger deal” than the rest…Tuna. According to “Seafood Health Facts: Making Smart Choices” (2014), a resource for healthcare providers and consumers, in 2014 American 2.3 lbs of tuna per person in the US. That’s more than cod, crab and clams combined! In April 2010 the oil spill contaminated the waters of the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of oil, so much oil that scientists and researchers alike have no realistic way of determining the overall impact, and have yet to conclude on the long term damage this spill will have on the ecosystem. With that being said, the scientific community concluded oil currently does cause harm to our fish friends. This is especially bad if it gets into their breeding grounds, which will severely affect their population. More specifically now,  let us focus on bluefin tuna, which use the Gulf of Mexico as a breeding ground during mating season. (Welch, C. 2015) These Tuna have been put under the microscope, filling countless hours of research to see the impacts of oil, and it’s not pretty. bluefin tuna are endangered with a declining population already, according to “Bluefin Tuna” (2010). Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) was, and still is, highly commercialized in its own right, seeking interests of Sushi companies and Tuna enthusiasts alike. Which then creates the issue of “what more is being done to endanger this species?”, well…oil spills certainly don’t help! Incardona, J.P, et al., (2014) concluded that bluefin tuna embryos had the lowest control survival and showed the highest percentage of larvae with the entire suite of defects, compared to other fish within testing. The entire suite of defects were tail and axial skeletal defects, defects coming from parts of the vertebrate (table 1). These results directly demonstrate the effects PAHs in oil have on these fish, even at small doses, and confirmed that oil will directly diminish bluefin tuna population at the beginning stages of development, potentially affecting future generations of the species to come. “So what? Bluefish Tuna are Atlantic bound fish, breeding in the Gulf seasonally, why should I care about them when I want to drill in the Arctic? I NEED my oil!” That’s great and all but due to the wonders of climate change, things have begun to change for Bluefish Tuna.  According to Hoag, H (2014) over 20 bluefin tuna were hauled off the coast of Greenland by fisheries in 2014 and that number has now increased. This is a pure example of what higher global temperatures changes in the ecosystem, altering the migration of a species like this can and will have an affect on the ecosystem it is moving to. Not only that, but the addition of Tuna to the Arctic waters now has the potential of harming this species when oil drilling begins in the Arctic waters, this is just one of many reasons to prevent such an event from occurring.

Olson, G. et al. (2016) and Mauduit, F. et al. (2016) both concluded that adult fish recovered from PAH exposure and return to a healthy balance without any further complications associated with oil spill absorption. Olson, G. et al (2016) assessed the concentration of PAH within menhaden fish after a Gulf of Mexico oil spill from 2011-2013. Olson, G. et al (2016) concluded that after the initial exposure of oil, the PAH levels within menhaden decreased as time passed due to not having a frequent source of PAH. The use of Gulf menhaden can help explain the oil spill impacts and generate a continuous 3–4 year cycle of available fish health studies, giving researchers the ability to assess impacts over longer time periods. Mauduit, F. et al (2016) on the other hand studied the specific effects dissolved oil has on a fish species and what are the means of recovery for that fish are. Their study highlighted that exposure to dispersant and to oil alone does not affect fish health, exposure to the oil and dispersant mixture was associated with temporarily impaired health. However, recovery occurred and no ecologically relevant consequences were observed when fish were transferred to a semi-natural field mesocosm. Fish health recovery confirms the absence of long-term effects (almost 1 year post-exposure). (Mauduit, F. et al., 2016, conclusion) Although adult fish were physically impaired and showed signs of ailments and deficiencies, adult fish still recovered from oil dispersals and that is some really good news. This means that some adult fish who are affected by spills can live longer lives than we expected and continue to reproduce although the previous mating season’s larvae have succumbed to over oil exposure they can continue their species existence and oil spills may not cause as much harm as we pre-determined.

Birds, like fish, are dramatically affected by oil spills. Whether they are young or old,  they are all affected the same and it is devastating.  In almost every place on earth imaginable there are birds even in such a cold place like the Arctic.  This is because they are extremely vital to most ecosystems.  They disperse seeds, pollinate plants, feed on carcasses, and most importantly recycle nutrients back into the land (Whelan et al. 2015, p. 256).  In a marine ecosystem like the Arctic there can’t be too many species of birds doing these things, you may ask.  However, there are abundant variety of species of birds that migrate to the arctic every year.  Without them these ecosystems would perish.  Birds are therefore an extremely good indicator of whether or not the ecosystem they live in is flourishing (Whelan et al. 2015, 256).   If you see that birds are struggling to survive, then often every other animal within that ecosystem are suffering as well.  This is true even in a colder environment like the Arctic.  The Arctic is one of the few last untouched treasures and if we continue to allow oil companies to drill here it will dramatically affect the birds that live this far north.  This not only includes the year long species that live there, but also the many migratory species that fly there in the summer (O’Hara et al., 2010 dis 3).  If something as dramatic as a large oil spill did occur, there wouldn’t be a chance for recovery.  Species of birds may even come in danger of complete extinction.

When birds get caught in something like an oil spill, it can devastate populations for years to come.  Troisi et al. (2016) states that less than half of the birds that are rescued are released again after being rescued in an average oil spill.  This is not to mention the hundreds of thousands of birds that die immediately without being rescued.  For example,  after the MV Tricolor oil spill over 19,000 common adult guillemots came in contact with a large portion of the oil.  The oil caused them to beach themselves or be stranded on land without the ability to move along the nearby coasts.  The common adult guillemots were either alive or on the brink of death without any means of rescue (Troisi et. al., 2016, p.16550).  While the majority of these birds were common adult guillemots, they were not the only birds affected.  This is because “Seabird populations are particularly vulnerable due to their distribution, foraging and breeding behaviour” (Troisi et. al., 2016, p.16549).   We can’t sit idly by while a man made looming storm of devastation slowly lingers in our mists. It would be only a matter of time until a leak occurred, or an accident that will directly lead to the birds dying of suffocation, hypothermia, or worse.  Suffocation would occur as a result of the birds choking on the oil or their breathing holes becoming clogged.  The oil causes hyperthermia when it breaks down the birds feathers which are necessary for warmth, buoyancy and to enable them to fly/swim for food (O’Hara et al., 2010 dis 3).  Essentially, if they don’t immediately die from suffocation, it would just be a matter of time until exhaustion and/or starvation got to them.

While large oil spills that spill millions of barrels into the ocean can have catastrophic effects on birds, the small leakages that sometimes go unnoticed can do great harm as well (Kotler, 2015).  Leaks occur all the time, without being stopped because the operations are being poorly supervised or when the drilling has stopped the wells weren’t capped right (Kotler, 2015).   Even though this oil that leaks out won’t create the same type of devastation as a big oil spill, it can still affect the ecosystem in which it is spilling into (Kotler, 2015).  When Ohara et al. (2016) did a study on Canadian Atlantic pelagic seabirds, common murres, and Dovekies they found out exactly how much oil can actually affect them.  Ohara et al. (2016) took 30 birds from that oil spill and measured how much oil they had on their feathers.  They found that even 0.1-0.3 μm can break down the chemical makeup of feathers and harm birds (O’Hara et al., 2010 dis 3).  Researchers tested oil impacts on feather structure in a warmer climate than the Arctic, so it’s possible that a smaller concentration would still affect them in a colder place. This is because oil seperates the feathers and exposes the skin to extreme temperatures (international bird rescue, (n.d.)).  Small leakages from oil wells can easily cause that thickness of oil around the well and affect the birds that are living there.

While birds may not have the large scary prowess like a shark, they are still considered the top of the food chain.  They have few predators besides us and receive their nutrients from the ocean in forms of fish, crustaceans and dead carcasses(Troisi, G. et. al., 2016, p.16549).  Small traces of oil that can get into the ecosystem will be absorbed by even smaller organisms which will be eaten by something higher up on the food chain.  That small amount of toxin will make it’s way up the food chain to the bird.  This in turn creates bioaccumulation.  The birds will take in all the toxins that its food consumed as well.  The toxin that is most dangerous in oil is called PAH’s which was discussed earlier in the paper.  When it builds up in organisms they can have long lasting effects that if concentrated enough can lead to death.  Birds can have “pathological changes in the intestinal tract, lungs, liver, kidneys… (Troisi, G. et. al., 2016, p.16549).”  PAH’s can eventually lead to death.  Birds are not accustomed to oil in their system, therefore when they come in contact with it in their systems it’s extremely hard to fight.  The best thing to do would just to not put oil in their ecosystem because it’s not meant to be there.  There’s no benefit for anyone besides humans in this situation. It is time to shift our selfishness to what really matters. It isn’t just the fish or microbes that will be affected, birds will be threatened into extinction too.  We can’t let the big oil companies bully us into thinking oil drilling in the Arctic is good, because if we do, all the unique species that live far north will become at risk.

We propose the best way to help ensure that oil drilling is prevented by creating a treaty among the nations who hold shares of the Arctic. Such treaties have coexisted before in the Arctic council which combines the concerns of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the US, which covers all major stakeholders in the Arctic council. Treaties to protect the Arctic environment like the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group have already been established. The U.S. Department of State show two important Arctic treaties; the U.S.-Russian Federation Polar Bear Management Agreement, (2000), and the US-Canada Agreement on Arctic Cooperation, (1988). Both of these treaties unite the U.S. with other country’s ideals to protect our Arctic land. Our goal is to take these working groups and develop a combined treaty that addresses such concerns to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic.

We understand that when it comes to a topic like this one, there will also be a crowd contrary to what we believe in, our resistant audience. To persuade this group away from their beliefs, we turn to “Time for Action Six Years After Deepwater Horizon” (2016), who recently reported updates on the worst oil spill in our country’s history that happened six years ago in April of 2010.  They reported the impact of the oil spill on fisheries could total $8.7 billion by 2020, including the loss of 22,000 jobs, and the 50,000 people involved in spill cleanup were exposed to chemicals that severely damage lung tissue, and it can take a decade or more for oil spill victims to recover from the physical and psychological effects of an oil disaster. As a group we don’t want this to happen again, we want to prevent oil drilling by avoiding it in the first place. Many factors must be considered when making conclusions about what affects fisheries. Some factors include fisheries management decisions, fishing effort, environmental conditions, and time of year. (Hale, et al., 2016) A fishery closure is an example of a management action made during and after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Emergency managers closed large fishing areas of the Gulf and reopened them when seafood test results showed safe levels for eating. The largest closure on June 2, 2010, was an area of 88,522 square miles, which is about 37 percent of the U.S. fishable waters in the Gulf of Mexico. This fishing closure may have enabled some species to survive and reproduce because they were not being fished.(Hale, et al., 2016). With effects on ecosystems, decline in personal health in humans who aided in the recovery and job loss in fisheries, it is hard for our group to fully reason with the resistant audience here. Oil spills are destined to occur, of course we have precautionary measures following the oil spill of 2010, but they are bound to occur. (Welch, C., 2015)

In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout spilled up to 200 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. Of that, only about 8 percent was recovered or burned off. The waves within the Arctic are cold, strong and unpredictable, giving rise to a feeling of uncertainty for those opposed to drill here. How will the chilling waves and frozen land react to the oil spilt amongst the Arctic waters? There is no prevention other than avoiding the act all together, we do not need to risk the Arctic, an area of the world already fragile and not prepared for an oil spill of detrimental effect.

Oil spills have been recorded all across the planet and show visible threats to the health and safety of nearby wildlife. Such spills have occurred since the start of oil drilling movements and threaten nearby ecosystems. There is consensus in the scientific community that oil drilling negatively impacts organisms from the species, population, and community levels (Okpokwasili, C., Nnubia, 1995; Brussaard et al., 2016; Tarnecki & Patterson III, 2015; Earth Island Journal, n.d.). Oil slicks not only kill on impact, they can create a slow death for fish and seabirds. We often distance ourselves from this outcome, though in reality we are directly impacted by the success of Arctic food. Fisheries are a primary form of food and resources in Arctic communities, and commercial areas rely on them for food. Any harm to this infrastructure damages our food supplies, and bioaccumulation is a serious threat to human health. Birds serve as ecosystem indicators, and their untimely deaths can only be predicted for species in the future. While many Arctic communities benefit short term from oil, the dependency on this substance is poisoning the ecosystem for the long term. Keeping a pristine environment in the Arctic helps break this dependency as towns like Churchill Canada could focus on ecotourism as a main source of money (Chotka, 2014). The Arctic is filled with charismatic wildlife that draws in people from all over the world, while it also leads as a great resource for primary production and wildlife that feeds off of it. It is our duty as humans to defend our planet, as we are the ones causing such destruction. There is a foreseeable future for communities to coexist if we dedicate our efforts to collaboration and ecosystem health.


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